Monday, October 1, 2007

Why I Don't Watch Reality TV

This isn't particularly political. But it is a noteworthy plea for some kind of dignity and compassion in our media.

However, since I am political, I shall add an addendum (does one ever do anything else with them?)

Reality TV, it seems to me, demonstrates perfectly the tendency of different modes of production to eventually become fetters on human development. The relevant passage from Marx is here:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.
(Those unfamiliar with Marxese can consult the Marxist Internet Archive glossary here).

What Marx is saying, more or less, is that a good way of doing things in one era becomes a bad way of doing things as time progresses and new technology develops. For example, Newtonian mechanics were a tremendous advance over previous physical theories, but Einstein showed their limitations (just as Einstein is currently being shown his own). The same applies to economic systems. Though capitalism unleashed enormous creative powers (especially when contrasted with the stagnation of feudalism), it too has become quite obsolete, as readers of this blog are no doubt fully aware.

What does this have to do with reality tv? EVERYTHING! The culture of any society is bound to be influenced by its mode of production, capitalism no less than the others. Just as feudal art until the renaissance depicted Great Chains of Being which justified the rule of kings, so capitalist art ultimately is produced within the sphere of capitalist society. The aforementioned obsolescence of capitalism surely affects its art.

Reality TV is, I think, ultimately that obsolescence expressed in the television format. It's almost as if, given capitalism's stultifying influence, it's harder and harder to find some new kind of art which can resonate on a broad level. Hence the trends towards subcultures. Reality tv is an attempt to recapture the societal imagination on a broad level by turning the camera inwards. There aren't any new ideas that are working, so why not just watch ourselves in a mirror. Of course this mirror is monstrously warped by ideology, but it's a mirror nonetheless. Reality tv is, in short, our culture smelling its own farts.

There is hope, however. I think that the success of Heroes (and its clones) bespeaks something significant and new in American culture: ordinary people's desire for power to change the world. For the last thirty years, people have been convinced nothing could change. I think this is starting to change. Of course, this desire for change is transmuted in the television program and infused with all different kinds of ideology, but the very fact that they have to warp it in such a way speaks to its power.